Most gifted children and teens have a heightened sensitivity and an acute awareness of what seems fair and socially just. As a result, distressing events such as those that occurred recently in Charlottesville may hit them particularly hard. As a parent, it is essential to offer the appropriate age-based support and remain attuned to what your child needs.
Here are some tips:
1. Young children may not fully grasp the full scope of events, but still may react to what they overhear. They may see snippets of fighting on TV, notice their family's distress, or overhear other adults talking about what occurred. They may formulate their own (often inaccurate) assessment of events. Will the Nazis come and get us? Will there be riots near my school?
You need to provide simple, reassuring statements to calm any lurking anxiety - even if your child is not overtly expressing it. Look to see if he seems more withdrawn, if his play seems more "aggressive," if he has trouble sleeping. Let him know that there was some protesting against some angry people (with beliefs that your family does not agree with), but that it is over now, and that no one is coming to your town or your house. If your child asks about the beliefs, you can simply say that these include believing that some people are not OK just because of their skin color or religion - and that you don't agree with that.
2. Older children and teens may be much more aware of the events and able to express their anger or anxiety. Again, try to reassure your child that you will keep her safe, and that it is not likely that such an event will happen in your town. If your teen wants to participate in a vigil or anti-hate march, you can assess the potential safety of the event, and decide to accompany her as a family effort. You might also suggest other ways your child or teen can express frustration, such as letter-writing, contacting government representatives, or getting involved in volunteer work.
Many inquisitive gifted teens want to understand the reasons for certain behaviors. They may pursue theories about the causes of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry. Depending on their age and maturity, they may benefit from articles ranging from historical reviews of slavery and the Holocaust to the social psychology of racism to current trends in the rise of hate groups. While this research may quell their thirst for knowledge, it may create further anxiety and distress.
3. Model appropriate reactions. Even if you are distressed, try not to overreact in front of your child. State your opinions, but also your plan of action. You might mention that you plan to write letters, participate in a vigil, or increase your volunteer work. This demonstrates to your child that even when there are distressing national or world events, no one has to remain passive. We each can take charge - even in a small way. This may help your child feel less powerless, address any existential angst that may be developing, and provide an outlet for his fears.
4. Help your child find healthy distractions. Continue life as usual, and remind your child that it is OK to continue to work, study and play as always. If your child wants to get involved, help her investigate volunteer activities at school or in the community that might spark an interest.
You cannot shield your child from the distressing events in the news. But as a loving parent, you can provide a buffer, a resource, and a guide to help your child manage the confusing, overwhelming emotions that follow.
A similar version of this article was published in PsychReg.